07/02/2019

Gerry Goes to School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I recently finished my gradual re-read of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series. So I decided that this year I will read her lesser-known ‘La Rochelle’ series, which has only nine books. I read two or three of them as a teenager, which I enjoyed very much. I have gradually acquired them over the past few years from various sources. The hardbacks are quite hard to find, and they were never published in the Armada abridged versions, so my collection is a mixture of hardback re-prints and more recent ‘Girls Gone By’ publications.

‘Gerry Goes to School’ is the first in the series, and I have a hardback edition of that. I don’t think I have ever read it before, although I might possibly have done as a child. It was Brent-Dyer’s first published book, so is significant from a historic point of view. For a debut novel it is well-written and interesting, but inevitably she matured as a writer over the next decades.

The story is mainly about eleven-year-old Geraldine, who was orphaned at a young age and has been living with two great-aunts. They are fond of her, but very old-fashioned, and she has been reared with correct slang-free language, and taught by a governess who taught by rote and books which were out of date at the time. However they must travel abroad, and want to leave her in the UK. So they get in contact with a nephew to see if he will take her in.

Rev Arthur Trevenner is the father of a long family - he and his wife have ten children, all still living at home although Paul and Margaret have left school. I found the sheer number of names rather overwhelming at first, but by the end of the book had worked them out. Helen (Nell) and Lawrence are older teenagers; Jill and Bernard are 14-year-old twins. Sheila and Cecil are about nine and ten, and the ‘babies’, Elizabeth and Geoff, do not yet go to school. They seem to be about five and three respectively.

So, adding another child isn’t a problem and they agree to give her a home for eighteen months. This is rather frightening for Gerry who has lived a very isolated life. She speaks in formal language, not understanding the ‘slang’ which is used almost continually by the Trevenner family, including words which are frowned upon in the Chalet School books.

Gerry’s education has been rather mixed too, but she quickly makes friends at the school, and seems to settle in surprisingly easily. The family all like her too, other than Jill who takes an extreme dislike to Gerry, for no apparent reason.

It’s mainly a school story, so there are several incidents in classrooms, and plenty of school life. I presume these are reasonably authentic as the author was herself educated privately, and also taught in several schools as a young woman. There are far too many names - something which I tend to skim over in the Chalet School books, too - as lists are given of those travelling on trains, or playing in matches - but the main characters have distinct personalities, and I found myself interested to know how Jill and Gerry would eventually resolve their differences.

There is, perhaps inevitably, a dramatic finale - not long after another frightening scene - but, as I expected, all ended satisfactorily.

I don’t quite understand how this can be first in the ‘La Rochelle’ series, as it doesn’t take place in La Rochelle at all, unless I have misunderstood something. I recognise some of the names - the Atherton family, in particular - some of whom are mentioned in some of the Chalet School books. And Gerry herself, in later life, becomes friendly with Grizel Cochrane of Chalet School fame. So perhaps more will become clear as I read the rest of the series over the next year.

Recommended in a low-key way for anyone who likes school stories set in this era. Not currently in print, and second-hand copies are often highly priced online, but it can sometimes be found in charity shops.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

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